Why does academia fear competition?

In 1999, George W. Bush said, in a speech to the Latin Business Association, "Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less – the soft bigotry of low expectations."

This statement represents a sentiment that receives widespread acclaim in academia: low expectations will yield below par results.  Questions quickly arise, though, enacting reforms to ensure that high expectations are met.  How can students who come from impoverished inner cities be expected to meet high academic standards?  How can a student from a broken home expect to make the grades to get into an Ivy League school?  How can teachers be evaluated on student performance when so many students come from challenging socio-economic backgrounds?  While coming from an impoverished home with one parent obviously presents many difficulties, why have so many in the education community refused to allow any type of competition in schools where many of these students are present?  Why not allow better teachers to receive higher pay than below average teachers?  If, as studies show, teacher quality is the most important factor in school achievement, would a financial incentive not boost quality in current teachers and encourage other potential high-quality teachers to enter the profession?

The common response to "merit-based pay" incentives in education is that because of the diverse circumstances of student backgrounds, it would not be "fair" to give additional pay to teachers based on how their students perform.  There is some irony to this position.  Down the hall in these same schools, competition is being utilized to its fullest potential.  On the basketball courts, football fields, and baseball diamonds across the country, we see how competition drives coaches to utilize a variety of strategies and approaches to get the most out of their athletes.  Coaches often find their teams filled with students from low-income areas and from broken homes.  Instead of using students' background as a justification for poor performance and lowering expectations, coaches often push their student-athletes to find strength through their adversity that can lead to high performance.

One explanation for this mentality among coaches is that they are in an occupation driven by competition.  Coaches are inherently innovative because their pay and job security are often based upon the results they yield.  One of the biggest critiques of any merit-based pay system in education is that schools have different demographics, so it is unfair to compare them to other schools or districts.  One answer is to allow local school districts to decide what standards should be met by their teachers to receive the pay increase.  Local school boards and administrations understand the unique problems their districts face.  Schools can use a growth model component, which would record student improvement over time, so if students are coming to teachers with comprehension behind their peers, the improvements made by those students are measured.

This concept of emphasizing student growth is in line with the conclusion reached by the lauded professor of psychology at Stanford University named Carol Dweck.  Dweck believes that the academic community needs to embrace the concept of "growth mindset."  Her growth mindset theory stipulates that if more focus is placed on the idea that intelligence isn't a fixed entity and can grow through adversity and work ethic, great academic leaps can be achieved.  One of the characteristics of successful schools described In the renowned High Performance in High Poverty Schools research (also known as the 90 90 90 schools) is "frequent assessment of student progress and multiple opportunities for improvement."

The best way to appeal to the best attributes of teachers is to create an environment where good teachers are rewarded and poor teachers are improved or relieved.  Holding teachers and schools accountable for student improvement by introducing merit pay measures uses competition to produce the most effective educational product.  The question is, are we willing to embrace school reform?

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